When a Pit Bull is Classified as a Service Animal
Picture a blind man walking about your property, finding his way through the eyes of a leashed pit bull. While that image may be unsettling for some in the multifamily industry, recent court rulings that challenge property owner liability for bites, damages, and attacks, are changing ideologies about service animals and causing property owners to chase their tails – especially when it comes to satisfying the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Judges in two states this year said that apartment properties could be liable for a dog bite or attack by a resident’s dog on or about the property. In July, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled a landlord could be a statutory owner of the dog and responsible for a dog bite. Also, a Maryland Court found in April that a property owner would not have to be found negligent and could be responsible, specifically, for a pit bull attack.
Service animals, as defined by the ADA, cannot be discriminated against, but the court rulings are raising questions in the multifamily industry about four-legged helpers with reputedly dangerous DNA. The topic consumed much of the conversation recently at a brainstorming session hosted by Fair Housing specialist Anne Sadovsky in Las Vegas.
“The question I got the most about is can we say no if the service animal is on a restricted breed list,” she said. “We talked about it extensively. It’s something that’s rousing the rebels.”
The short answer is “no,” says Sandovsky. The bigger question for the multifamily industry is how to handle the liability.
The Changing Face of Service Animals
ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The broader definition cites work or tasks that include “guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.”
Last year, ADA amended Titles II and III of the Act to only classify dogs as service animals and to also exclude emotional support animals under the definition.
But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development followed by upholding its Fair Housing Act policy that service animals are not limited to dogs and that emotional support animals are to be included. Disabled individuals may request a reasonable accommodation for assistance animals other than dogs, HUD says.
According to policy, a service animal could be as unique as a miniature horse or parrot.
The Growing Multifamily Industry Challenge: Restrictive Breed Service Animals
But forget that a service animal’s hooves could make for a mess in an apartment. The greater concern is being required to take in a breed of dog – and pit bulls have rated the most attention – that has made headlines for deadly attacks on people.
American Pit Bull Terriers are most often associated with illegal dog fighting and have largely been responsible for breed-specific legislation. Pit bull enthusiasts say the dogs are as lovable as the next, but many properties won’t allow them for fear of aggressive behavior toward residents and staff that could result in lawsuits and higher insurance premiums.
But pit bulls are beginning to join the protected class of animals – a list that has traditionally included some aggressive breeds like German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Dobermans – used by the disabled for everything from seeing to emotional support. The breed is falling off of vicious animal lists and courts have even ruled in favor of disabled owners who use pit bulls for service.
What owners and managers fear most, Sadovsky says, is that they will have to allow a pit bull classified as a service animal on their property.
“If it’s a pet, you have every right to decline any pet that you want to decline,” she said “But when it’s a service animal, it’s really a big issue.”
Property owners likely will be contending with this delicate fair housing problem for quite some time. Sadovsky points to increasing numbers of Baby Boomers who could require use of a service animal the longer they live.
The Rock and a Hard Place of Restrictive Breeds
Sadovsky tells her clients to check city and state rules and fashion their restricted breed lists for pets accordingly. While such a list won’t carry much weight for restricting service animals, Sadovsky says following the pack is a good practice.
“I think judges will continue to take side of persons with disabilities,” she said. “But you can always look at the judge and say, ‘this is what the actual city rules say and we’ve tried to do the same thing.’ ”
Also, ask for documentation stating that the resident/applicant has a disability if the disability is not visible. She cautions not to ask the nature of the disability.
Performing a background check on a service animal, although that may be like searching for a needle in a hay stack, is not out of the question, Sadovksy says. By law, service animals are not required to be registered, although there are a number of registry services – like the National Service Animal Registry – that verify an animal’s service designation. Such registries, however, don’t provide much more information.
Sadovsky said property owners have the right to talk to a former housing provider, or where the service animal lived in the past, and to question its behavior. Aside from getting visual verification of the animal and perhaps a picture for file, there is not much else property owners can do besides cross their fingers.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch this thing after what’s happened in Kentucky and Maryland,” she said. “This is the rock and the hard place. How are you going to take responsibility and liability if (the service animal) happens to bite somebody?”
Good question. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Editor’s Note: Edits were made to the article on December 6 to remove any perceived bias against the pit bull breed.
Image: Chloe the pit bull.
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